When I fell for Peggy Montgomery, she was maybe 5. I just saw her again today -- almost ninety years later, alive and well.
Every time my kids drag me to an of-the-moment crapcorn movie like Hunger Games, I have to remind myself that they've been more than patient when shown many vintage black-and-white movies -- even silents -- in fact, have actually often embraced them.
A few tears ago -- before The Artist and Hugo made silent film hp again -- I took my girlfriend and daughters to see this 1924 comedy at New York's Walter Reade Theater, on a lark. One of my kids is named Helen -- when she was an infant, I had bought a hardcover copy of the once-bestseller it was based on, to put in her nursery; they both love babies; and my cousin Ben Model composes and performs silent film music (often improvising).
Edward Everett Horton was in it -- who they knew from Astaire and Rogers movies, I knew from Holiday, Arsenic and Old Lace and, from my own childhood, as the unseen narrator of "Fractured Fairy Tales" from Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
But none of us expected to be bowled over by a five year old. "Baby Peggy," as she was billed, did an amazing amount of stunts, including falling out of a tree and playing with a straight edge razor. She stole every scene she was in. It wasn't just her incredibly expressive face or fantastic comic timing -- she seemed to have a precocious knowledge of the world.
Who the hell was she? What had come of her?
|FDR and Peggy|
But soon after Helen's Babies, a studio chief and Peggy's father (who'd done cowboy extra work) had a fight over her contract, and she was blackballed from the business. Her step-grandfather ran off with all the family's savings, most of Peggy's movies were lost when her first studio, Century Films, burned in 1925.
Peggy worked in vaudeville -- and, when vaudeville died, as a faceless extra in "talking pictures." Ultimately she escaped the unhappy family her fame had torn asunder (a jealous sister, a father who took credit for her success, etc.)
|Jackie Coogan, pre-Fester|
She has published books about silent film cowboys like her dad, abused child stars like herself, and her fellow child superstar Jackie Coogan (right, who we all know as Uncle Fester from the Addams Family TV series), whose financial hardships led to changes in the law protecting underage actors from their money being plundered. And finally, the 1996 memoir, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?
|Diana with Baby Peggy dolls, circa 1996|
Her amazing journey was brought back vividly today at the Turner Classic Movies film festival, which presented a new 55-minute documentary, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, directed by Netherlander Vera Irewebor. It alternates between clips of Peggy's silents, the story of her life, and recent interviews and, touchingly, scenes of Peggy recapping her life to her young granddaughter.
A campaign is starting to get Peggy one of those embedded stars on Hollywood Boulevard. On the way home from the theater, I walked past one for Donald Trump. If he rates one, certainly Peggy does too.